Muslim extremist kidnappers escape army cordon, flee to jungle
LAMITAN, Philippines (AP) – Aided by reinforcements swarming in from the jungle, Muslim extremists broke through an army siege in the Philippines Sunday and fled back into the dense undergrowth with their captives, including three Americans.
The nighttime escape from a hospital that the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas had seized the day before – possibly in search of medicine and doctors to aid wounded comrades – dashed hopes for a quick end to the weeklong hostage saga.
Amid the chaos of assaults by the military and the guerrillas’ hasty departure, nine of the Abu Sayyaf’s original 20 hostages, taken from a beach resort hundreds of miles away, managed to escape.
But the Abu Sayyaf also took an unknown number of new hostages from the hospital, including a doctor and his wife. And the bodies of two Filipino hostages taken at the resort were found outside the town, one of them beheaded.
The three Americans – Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. and missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan. – were still among the captives, witnesses in the hospital said.
After withstanding attacks by helicopter gunships firing rockets, about 60 rebels trapped in the hospital used the hostages as shields to escape as 100 other guerrillas attacked soldiers from nearby jungle, inflicting heavy casualties, said Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan.
”Fresh terrorist troops under cover of darkness used diversionary tactics to distract the troops,” Adan said, adding that his men limited their fire for fear of hitting hostages.
”There were no reports of any of the hostages held being injured,” Adan said. ”We don’t know where they are going.”
Fighting was reported Sunday in at least five villages surrounding Lamitan, town councilor Bidong Ismael told RMN radio.
Adan said the beheaded captive found outside the town was identified as Armando Bayona, a guard at the Dos Palmas beach resort where the guerrillas seized 17 Filipinos and three Americans a week ago.
Police believe Bayona and the other dead captive were killed days earlier because their bodies were badly decomposed, Police Capt. Omar Adjid Dalawis said.
The Abu Sayyaf claims to be fighting for a separate Muslim state in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines. The government regards the group as merely bandits.
Hostages who escaped Saturday’s deadly battle told of their terror as helicopter gunships pounded the hospital with rockets.
”We lived from explosion to explosion, fearing the next one would kill us all,” said Aurora Samson, a 60-year-old teacher who had gone to the hospital with her granddaughter to pick up a prescription. ”Because of the volume of gunfire, I thought there would be no tomorrow.”
She said she and her granddaughter were in one room of the bullet-scarred hospital with 27 other people. She and her granddaughter huddled on the urine-soaked floor of a concrete-walled bathroom; other people hid under beds.
Roman Catholic priest Rene Enriquez, 39, said the Abu Sayyaf kept him in a room with the three Americans.
He recalled that Gracia Burnham approached him and asked, her voice shaking: ”Can you pray for us so we will be saved?”
”I will pray,” Enriquez answered. ”I saw fear in their faces.”
Hospital administrator Antonio Aguilera said at least four hospital staffers were missing in addition to the doctor: two nurses, a midwife and an accounting clerk. He had not been able to do a head count on patients.
Teresa Ganzon, one of the resort hostages who escaped Sunday, asked the government to halt its attack.
”I’m appealing to the government to … look for another solution to the problem. The hostages will have a hard time because they know nothing about the jungle,” Ganzon said.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo repeated her no-ransom policy on Sunday: ”We will negotiate for their unconditional release, but no ransom. Negotiation is always part of military action, to convince them the alternative is worse: die now or face due process later.”
She met later in the day at the Manila airport with five former hostages. Also aboard the flight were at least 13 wounded soldiers, most still in their fatigues, who were whisked into five waiting ambulances. Many had intravenous drips.
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